As the superlatives and tributes pour in, it has become increasingly clear that mere words cannot do justice to the accomplishments and character of Abdul Sattar Edhi, who passed away on Friday night after a long battle with kidney disease. A veritable national institution, selflessly devoting over six decades of his life to helping the poor and destitute through his charitable foundation and its associated organizations, Edhi’s tireless efforts and relentless determination enabled him to make a contribution towards the betterment of society that will never be forgotten. Edhi’s ambulances, orphanages, free kitchens, clinics, and other endeavors provided vital services and, indeed, succour to hundreds of thousands of people across the country and it can only be hoped that his Foundation, and those who support it, will do justice to Edhi’s legacy by continuing his good work.
Much has already been written about Edhi’s journey, and the struggles involved in building Pakistan’s largest charitable network. Much has also been said about Edhi’s personal humility and modesty, and his enduring passion for helping the less fortunate. However, it is also important to reflect on the circumstances under which Edhi felt compelled to make the provision of welfare to the poor his life’s work. Indeed, the simple fact of the matter is that Edhi, and those who have been inspired by him, have long sought to fill a vacuum left by a state that has, since 1947, repeatedly proven itself to be incapable of providing even the most basic necessities to the deprived and destitute who form the vast majority of this country’s population. The ‘success’ of the Edhi Foundation has also simultaneously served as a damning indictment of the state and its failure to protect its citizens; in an ideal world, with a more accountable and responsive state, and with a more equitable distribution of wealth, people like Edhi would not be required to provide healthcare and shelter to the poor.
The statistics speak for themselves. Virtually every single indicator measuring human development demonstrates just how little Pakistan has accomplished when it comes to improving the lives of its citizens. Those who take pride in Pakistan’s possession of nuclear weapons, or the acquisition of the latest fighter jets, or the inauguration of yet another road or railway track, would do well to reflect on how Pakistan remains one of the worst places in the world when it comes to maternal mortality, access to clean drinking water, malnutrition, and literacy. Almost ten percent of children born in Pakistan will not live to see their fifth birthdays, and over fifty percent of the population continues to live without access to proper sewerage or sanitation. Approximately half the population continues to experience multi-dimensional poverty, and many millions of people live without easy access to adequate healthcare and educational facilities. The list goes on and on, with the only constants being stagnant social indicators buttressed by progressively declining public investment in these areas.
It is not difficult to identify the structural factors that underpin the state’s insouciance when it comes to the welfare of the citizens of Pakistan. The economic imperatives of a security state, emphasising the maintenance of relatively high levels of defence expenditure, have combined with the empowerment of a predatory and rapacious political elite to create a situation in which the priorities of the government have historically been skewed towards securing the interests of the military while also facilitating continued rent-seeking by those in power. The weakness of electoral accountability – largely due to repeated episodes of authoritarian rule and the not unrelated development of patronage politics – has ensured the maintenance of the status quo, with few options available for the people to have their voices heard.
Most observers would agree that people like Edhi are difficult, if not virtually impossible, to replace. The sheer scale of his work is unparalleled, and is likely to remain so for some time to come. Yet, working as an ultimately private entity, there were limits to what the Edhi Foundation could achieve. For every intervention his organization made, there were undoubtedly many more that could not be made. This is not meant as a criticism of Edhi and his efforts; he did more than could be reasonably expected from someone in his position, and the countless lives he saved and bettered speak for themselves. Instead, it is just meant to highlight that ultimately, it is the responsibility of the state, with all of the infrastructural and financial power at its disposal, to look after its citizens. Philanthropy, while admirable and welcome, can never be a replacement for effective public policy. Indeed, when the British journalist Peter Oborne once asked Edhi about his thoughts on the future, he said, ‘Unless things change, I predict a revolution’. Edhi himself recognised that without fundamental reform of the state and its institutions, and the radical reorientation of society towards a model predicated on providing for the needs of the many rather than the few, the status quo would be unsustainable.
In death, Edhi has been co-opted by individuals and organisations from across the political spectrum, all of whom have sought to portray him as one of their own. Indeed, it is disgusting to see political parties that reportedly tried to extort him now sing his praises, just as it is nauseating to witness religious organisations (some with their own ‘welfare’ wings) claim him as a kindred spirit after spending years calling him an infidel his personal lack of religious fervour. As Edhi’s own pronouncements repeatedly made clear, however, he saw himself as nothing more than a champion of the poor, with his belief in a shared humanity trumping religious, sectarian, and ethnic differences. While it is right and proper to honour Edhi for his charitable works, it is also important to learn from, and celebrate, his humanistic message of peace and harmony.